How to Prevent Dog Bites: Reading the Body Language of Fear and Aggression
Dogs have been bred as faithful friends to humanity for thousands of years. They are loyal to their masters like no other animal, and yet it's important to remember that they are still animals. No matter how small, a biting dog can do serious damage to a victim and will leave its owner with a big liability.
The best way to treat a dog bite is to avoid it in the first place. Whether or not you own or ever plan to own a dog, you should know the warning signs of an uncomfortable or aggressive dog, how to respond, and how to get out of a dangerous situation.
This is, surprisingly, the most rare form of dog bite. A dog that would rather bite a human than get away is very rare, and very dangerous. An animal with a real intent to attack will not hesitate or warn you before lunging. They often will not even growl, but will adopt a firm stance with direct eye contact. The dog may display its teeth in a snarl, and have its hackles raised. The tail will be high and confident.
If the dog gives you a chance to get away, do so as calmly as possible. Don't make eye contact, don't turn your back, and don't run. Back away slowly until you are safe. Seek professional help to handle or catch a dog like this- only trained and experienced individuals should make the attempt.
The most common cause of dog bites is a stressed pup unable to escape a perceived threat. Whether or not the cause of this fear is actually dangerous, a scared dog will bite to escape, but almost always only after giving warning. Examine these dogs:
The tricolor mix has just stepped on the Boxer during play, and doesn't seem to realize he's made her uncomfortable. He throws off a basic appeasement signal by avoiding eye contact, but is still being rude by standing over her. Notice the Boxer's 'whale-eye,' looking at him askance and flashing the whites of her eyes. Her tail is low and still and her ears are pinned back. She lets out a low growl and her mouth is drawn back tightly in a 'smile.' The image is not action-packed like the first in this article, but it's actually a much more dangerous situation. The Boxer is watching the mix's every move, ready to go after him at a moment's notice.
In your own interactions with a fearful dog, watch for body language like a refusal to make eye contact, whale-eye, pinned ears, tight lips, and growling. Never punish a dog for growling; growling is a great thing! It's a dog's way of telling you, 'I don't like this, don't make me bite you. Please get away from me.' Always give a growling dog its space. Watch for situations that may seem frightening to a dog. Strangers approaching, children, and loud noises are the most common culprits, but every dog is unique. Make sure your pup always has a way out of stressful situations.
This type of attack is actually a mixture of aggression and fear, but is so common it needs to be addressed separately. Dogs, like people, have an idea of what's theirs, and they don't appreciate having their possessions taken away from them. Of course, as a dog owner you know that you should be able to handle anything your dog wants with safety. But at some point, almost every dog exhibits some signs of resource guarding. This can apply to food, people, toys, locations, and anything else a dog considers his own. Below is an example of classic guarding behavior:
The Boxer has a special fondness for pears- she picks a pear every time she's in her owner's orchard, and then keeps it with her for the duration of the walk. When the mix approaches to investigate, the Boxer hunches over the pear protectively. Her lips are drawn back and her muzzle wrinkles in a snarl. She makes direct eye contact and growls loudly. If the puppy comes closer, she will lunge and possibly bite. She will allow a human to take the pear from her without this behavior, but many dogs have bitten their masters over a bowl of food or a meaty bone.
Resource guarding like this will take a great deal of time and effort to break, and it's best to work with a professional behaviorist (note the difference between a behaviorist and a trainer.) If you choose to re-educate the dog yourself, always be cautious and alert. Show the dog that by giving up its prize, you will give it something better. This is called 'swapping up,' and must be consistently practiced for much of a dog's life to prevent a relapse.
Every dog has the potential to bite. A fluffy Yorkshire Terrier can do damage just like a massive Bloodhound, and is just as likely to do so. As a dog owner, it's your job to protect your pet from situations where the dog will resort to violence, and to recognize the warning signals when things get uncomfortable. I recommend reading up on canine body language in general, as a good working knowledge is invaluable in training and living with a dog.